In the 31 years since the discovery of HIV and AIDS, nearly 30 million people have died from the virus with 34 million people currently living with the disease.
The epidemic is at its worst in sub-Saharan Africa, and women are affected the most. In fact, 59 percent of people living with HIV and AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa are women.
Statistics like these are mind-numbing. Though necessary, they can nearly cripple our response as they point to the inefficacy of our actions.
This is why, when I teach or write on HIV and AIDS, I prefer to tell stories. And as people of faith, we need stories, both ancient and new, to help us navigate our response to social issues such as HIV and AIDS.
Grace, whose name has been changed to protect her from stigma, is a woman who lives in the Lake Victoria basin of Tanzania. At 14, she ran away from home with a man visiting her village because her parents could no longer pay her school fees.
Grace and her husband had two children together. Although she married young, she valued her marriage. But once her husband got money, he took another wife without her consent. Her husband and his second wife were married in a Christian church. Even though polygamous marriage is illegal for Christians in Tanzania, Grace said churches rarely check to see if the partners already are married.
Grace didn’t know what to do. She tried to live in this new polygamous relationship, but it became too much. After her husband took a third wife, she ran away to Nairobi, where she found a job as a maid.
After she left, her children did not do well without her. Her eldest son especially was distraught. She managed to pay his school fees for his first two years of secondary school, but by his third year her situation had changed. She could no longer afford the school fees, and the father refused to help as long as the boy’s mother was no longer acting as his wife.
In her job as a maid, Grace constantly was harassed sexually by the owner of the house. She refused to sleep with him for nearly a year, but then he offered to pay her son’s school fees in exchange for sex. She still said no, but after hearing her son had been crying for two weeks, she finally gave in.
She knew her poverty made it impossible to care for all her children, but she said, “Let me fight for just this one.”
The only weapon Grace had for the fight was her body. As a result, she contracted HIV by giving into her boss’ demands. This was how she protected her family.
Grace’s son has now grown up and graduated from college. He is smart, dedicated, and cares deeply for his mother. He also has no idea that his mother contracted HIV while trying to secure his future.
While Grace’s story shocks and angers us, the story is parallel to Ecclesiastes 1:9 “there is nothing new under the sun.” Hers is the story of a woman being forced into a situation where she uses her body as a tool for survival is a story as old as time.
This is Bathsheba’s story as well. She was bathing on the roof when King David, who should have been at battle, saw her and sent for her.
Scripture doesn’t tell us much about the encounter, only that he sent, she came, and he slept with her.
Missing from the biblical record is Bathsheba’s voice. The only words we hear from her mouth is her message to David: “I’m pregnant.”
What we do know is that during David and Bethsheba's time, women had very few choices about their bodies. When a king sends for you, you come.
We remember other stories, such as the story of Tamar, who was raped by David’s favorite son, Amnon, and we remember how in response, David did nothing.
Though separated by thousands of years, we find a common thread in Grace's and Bathsheba’s stories. Both women were at the mercy of the men in their lives, forced in to situations where their bodies became their currency for survival.
While doing fieldwork in Tanzania about Christian marriage and HIV/AIDS, the women in my study told me that they could not refuse sex with their husbands: if they did, they would be “beaten first and raped later.”
I wonder if Bathsheba would have told a similar story about her encounter with David. I wonder if she submitted because she feared for her husband’s life. The text following this passage shows us clearly that David controlled Uriah’s fate (2 Sam. 11:6-27).
Like the story of David and Bathsheba, death and love too often are linked in the stories of women living with HIV and AIDS in Africa. If we want to see this pandemic end, women must be given space to have power and control over their own lives. One way to do this is for Christian churches to advocate for women’s rights around the world.
This global pandemic reminds us that its time for some stories — including the story of patriarchy — to come to an end.
Learn more about the Grace-Bathsheba-Patricarchy connection and the AIDS pandemic in a video scriptural reflection by Eric Barreto, an assistant professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, Minn., HERE.
Melissa Browning is the Graduate Program Director for the MA in Social Justice and Community Development at Loyola University Chicago’s Institute of Pastoral Studies. Her work focuses primarily on sexual ethics and bioethics. She is currently writing on Christian marriage in light of the African HIV and AIDS epidemic. Her book on this project, When Marriage Becomes Risky, will be published later this year. Melissa is also an ordained Baptist minister through the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Learn more about Melissa’s work on her website: www.melissabrowning.com. Her post appears via Odyssey Networks.
Image: Abishag at the bed of David, with Bathsheba, Solomon, and Nathan from a bible historiale (The Hague, MMW, 10 A 19, fol. 33r), c. 1435. Via Wiki Commons.